This election is the first in a generation for us to have an open conversation about an issue that has always played a central role in British politics. Already, the entrenched class system that defines our prospects and livelihoods – and its attendant snobbery – have been at the fore, from Jacob Rees-Mogg insinuating that he wouldn’t have died in the Grenfell fire owing to his superior common sense to billionaires railing against Labour’s plans to reverse extreme economic inequality. Mr Corbyn simply trying to punish those who’ve succeeded in a perfect meritocracy devoid of any bigotry and inequality of opportunity, is it? Well not quite.
We now seem to be finding the vocabulary to name what’s going on here. Despite being central to almost everything we experience, class is also something we in Britain have been told to stay quiet about. We’re told that it’s distasteful, uncomfortable and old-fashioned. The definitions of class might be rooted in the material realities of pay and work, but their cultural associations run deeper than that. Mogg’s statement is symptomatic of a view that doesn’t just consider working class people to be poor (it’s hard to be anything else in relation to Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose estimated to be worth around £150 million) but also less intelligent. There’s the suggestion that working class people’s financial realities are a product of their inherent inferiority.
This all plays into our discomfort in talking about class. We didn’t arrive here by accident, either. In recent decades, politicians whose economic projects depended on us accepting a programme of social mobility and individual ambition encouraged us to accept the logic that the have-nots were deserving of their fate. And by reverse, that the rich got there through hard work and hard work alone. This is all part of an historical moment termed neoliberalism, in which the formal systems to protect the working class were dismantled and everything given over to an individualised system of competition and profit making. It’s a system that has defined the order of play in both the US and the UK since the days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
In this climate, the working classes have often been painted as exclusively male, white and racist – a caricature of the 1970s that white-washed over the experiences of the millions of ethnic minority working class people, while also pitting the working class against itself, minimising the possibility for a collective identity that would be able to effectively fight for working class rights. In other cases, politicians would even go so far to suggest that the working class no longer existed, with John Major speaking of a classless society, David Cameron claiming that “it's not where you've come from that counts, it's where you're going” and Labour’s John Prescott declaring that “we were all middle class now”.
The dial is beginning to shift, albeit slowly. Labour MP Laura Pidcock recently argued in Tribune that “we need to talk about class more, not less.” But, she acknowledged, there is still, “a sense that the Labour Party using the term ‘working class’ isn’t going to help win over the people who would never identify that way.” This is because of how successful the neoliberal project has been in supplanting a moral hierarchy onto the material conditions of capitalism, which necessarily depends on there being working-class people to carry out the work of a functioning society; and the shame that they have been caused to feel as a result.
Many people simply don’t want to identify as working class for the fact that so much shame has been heaped upon it. What’s more, neoliberalism proved immensely popular for those who were able to seize on its opportunities. Many people from low-income backgrounds were able to increase their wealth, while the capitalist class – able to extract wealth from the work of other people – were able to increase their profit margins by lowering workers’ standards.
It was a logic that reigned supreme and without much critical objection, at least in the formal avenues of politics, operating under the illusion of endless growth – until the cataclysmic events of the 2008 financial crisis. At which point, people started to wake up to the realities of a system that wasn’t working, and in which a very small minority of people was becoming inordinately rich off the work produced by everybody else.
The problem was, in the meantime, neoliberalism had also fragmented working class communities. High streets that once thrived, with successful small businesses and well-funded public services, such as libraries, were emptied out. The lucky few who’d been able to seize on the opportunities of social mobility were often forced to relocate to large cities. While the other group, dubbed more recently the “precariat”, would be perpetually locked in a cycle of insecure work, low pay and financial struggle; often working in low-paid hospitality jobs, where they were subject to zero-hour contracts. With class being ever more fragmented and difficult to define, denying its existence became easy enough for the political PR machine, and on account of social mobility, defining its parameters is still somewhat tricky.
But as Laura Pidcock also explains, the working class broadly constitutes anyone who still has to rely on work in order to survive. People that “must work to live,” she explains, who “do not have the luxury of savings, investments, or inheritance to fall back on.”
This represents the overwhelming majority of us, and Labour, the only party that currently serves our interests, has vowed to replace a programme of social mobility with one of social justice. This doesn’t prevent anyone from pursuing a career as a solicitor, doctor, lawyer, dentist, scholar, teacher, artist or engineer. In fact, by minimising the cost of higher education, it would make these professions more accessible to people from working class households. But it would lower the threshold for financial security for people across the professional spectrum, including people in both traditionally ‘white collar’ professionals as well as people in more manual, care-based or hospitality professions. All of us who rely on work, and not inheritance or a large property portfolio, stand to benefit.
American politicians have more enthusiastically embraced class, with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez invoking class rhetoric and speaking vividly about the realities faced by working-class people.
The Labour party could afford to do the same. By giving workers more rights, minimising the power of shareholder interests, but also taxing inheritance and minimising the financial benefits afforded to landlords to fund public services, including the NHS and affordable housing, they’re standing up for those of us who depend on work by ensuring that we face fewer financial burdens.
The only ones who stand to lose are the super rich, and when they hold the rest of us in such contempt, why should we care about them? These are the people becoming extremely wealthy at the expense of you being able to spend time with your family, friends and hobbies, and when so many of them dwell in offshore holdings a million miles away from the nearest polling station, beating them should be easy providing all of us get out and vote.